Keeping your soil in good condition benefits all of your plants, from your vegetable garden to your largest trees. One key component to the success of your garden is the use of mulch. Most gardeners are familiar with the use of mulch during the summer months. It works as a barrier, keeping the ground water from evaporating too quickly. In addition to mulch serving important functions during the summer, it offers many benefits during the colder winter months too. Read on for helpful information about the benefits of applying mulch before and during winter, the different types of mulch, and where to use it.

Benefits of Mulch

Leaves and Twigs on top of Soil

Mulch feeds helps healthy soil and transforms poor soil into healthy soil. This is because it keeps the temperature down and the helps the moisture level of the soil stay more consistent. Plus, it breaks down, enriching the soil with organic minerals.

When applied during mid to late winter, mulch will keep seeds from propagating in the spring and can significantly reduce the amount of weeds you’ll find blooming as the weather warms. Even those weeds that fight past the mulch and manage to grow are easier to pull out of the ground with the soft, enriched soil.

Another benefit of mulch is the ability to reduce pests on plants. While, the occasional flying bee or fly may fool you, most bugs actually approach plants from the ground and crawl up the plant's body. A thick layer of mulch gives insects a major obstacle en route to the plant and is often enough to suppress them.

Mulch can also work like a blanket for the soil. This blanket offers plant and tree roots reprieve from the intense heat and also from the bitter cold. This helps root health and the overall strength of the plant. Because it helps retain moisture, the plants are healthier with less watering requirements.

Yet another benefit of mulch is the visual appeal it can add to your yard. Invision bark chip walkways and beds filled with nutshells. In addition to looking nice, mulch is a great way to create paths over soggy or muddy areas of your yard.

So long as you're using organic mulch and nothing artificial, it will eventually add nutrients back into the soil. Microorganisms harbor in the moist, composting materials, and add several elements to the backyard ecosystem. Earthworms feed on the decaying material helping it to decompose further. Each type of mulch offers different nutrients, so just remember to test the components of the soil occasionally and add more minerals if it gets out of balance.

Where to Use Mulch

Mulch can be used basically anywhere in your yard and garden. Since the purpose is to help protect and support plants, the most common location is around the bottom of trees, shrubs, flowers, and plants. This can be freestanding trees in the yard, throughout garden pathways, or filling the length of flowerbeds.

Planning and Application

When choosing your type of mulch, deciding factors include cost, availability, desired look, durability, and ease of application. Keep in mind that you will be laying mulch in a 2-4 inch layer when calculating how much you will need. When applying mulch, do not mulch all the way up to the base of the tree or plant. Leave a gap. Starting at about 1” for smaller plants, that unmulched space grows to about a foot for a large tree.

Types of Mulch

Circular Piles of Mulch Materials

There are myriad types of mulch you can choose for your needs. Each have varying pros and cons.

Newspaper

Newspaper is readily available, which means it is inexpensive to obtain. Since they are no longer printed with toxic dyes, newspapers are considered safe for your mulching and composting needs. Avoid the waxy ads since they may still contain toxins and they break down more slowly. Newspaper is less appealing to look at then other options, but it is effective in weed control and you can cover it with your favorite bark chip or straw.

Wood Chips, Shavings, and Sawdust

As long as the wood is not chemically treated, all forms of it will benefit your garden. Whether you choose larger wood chips, shavings, or sawdust, they will all add an organic layer to your soil that breaks down naturally. These products are easy to find but unless you have access to a chipper, you will need to purchase them, haul them or have them delivered, and manually apply them to your beds.

Leaves

Another option in your mulch arsenal is leaves. They break down quickly and can blow around, making it difficult to keep them in place. However, if you have trees, this natural mulch is easy to find and redistribute.

Pine Needles

Needles from pine trees make a fragrant and appealing mulch. You can use full swags or grind them down to the needles themselves.

Straw

Straw Mulch being applied to base of a Tomato Plant

Another readily available material is straw. It breaks down quickly, but has enough weight to stay where you place it.

Grass

Grass clipping also make a nice mulch and are a great way to keep from overloading your composter.

Nut Shells

The overarching benefit of nut shells is that they break down very slowly. So if you want a long-lasting mulch this might be a good option for you. However, the shells can be expensive to obtain and some shells have very sharp edges, making them more difficult to handle both during application and subsequent plant care.

Vineyard or Brewery Waste

If you have a source nearby, used hops and vineyard waste are more good choices for mulching your yard. Unless dried, these materials may be heavier to haul and apply than other options.

Manure

A very organic material, manure feeds the soil. However, it can add an unpleasant aroma, is unsightly, and is a squishy substance that would not work for anywhere you plan to tread. You can add a layer of straw or other mulch over the top of it as a solution to these problems.

Rice Hulls and Ground Corncobs

If these are available in your area, they make a nice organic material for mulching. You will have to decide if the corn husks provide the look you want.

Mulching has myriad benefits to any type of garden. So the choice is not whether you should mulch, but rather what you should mulch with. Consider what’s available to you and what your goals are for the space and you should have no problem finding a material to suit your needs.